USS Constitution Proves Its Mettle
By John Allison
It took Naval Constructor George Claghorn and his crew of shipwrights three tries to launch the USS Constitution. On a cold October 21, 1797, the ship finally slid down the ways at the North End shipyard to begin a storied career. By the time she was launched, the main threat to American shipping was from French privateers. On July 22, 1798, USS Constitution sailed out of Boston Harbor for the first time to defend American merchant ships from the French.
After almost four years of patrols and deployments in defense of American shipping, USS Constitution was put in ordinary on June 18, 1802. Ships in ordinary were kept in reserve for future use. As it turned out, Constitution was not idle for long. Commodore Edward Preble took command of Constitution on May 19, 1803. He wasted no time getting the ship ready for sea. By June 25th, laborers working from 5:15 AM to 7 PM had caulked, repaired, and re-sheathed the ship’s hull with copper. Working without a dry dock, they hauled the ship over on its port side then starboard side to work on the hull.
Constitution sailed for the Mediterranean in August of 1803, and wouldn’t return until October 1807. Commodore John Rodgers commanded Constitution after her return from the Mediterranean, but found the ship very slow and sluggish. Captain Isaac Hull took command of Constitution on June 17, 1810. He quickly realized why Constitution was so slow. He wrote the Secretary of the Navy “I fear she will never sail as she has done until she goes into fresh water.” Hull had correctly diagnosed the ship’s problem- when divers checked the hull, they found it covered with “ten waggon loads” of seaweed, barnacles, oysters, and mussels. The ship sailed for Wilmington, Delaware, where the fresh water killed most of the sea life slowing the ship down.
The next spring, Hull received orders to prepare for a voyage across the Atlantic. The ship’s mission was to transport Joel Barlow, the new Minister to France, and an interest payment on the country’s Revolutionary War debt to Holland. Relations with England were deteriorating, so Hull prepared to sail into potentially hostile waters. During this last peacetime cruise before the War of 1812, encounters with the British were predictably tense. The Royal Navy was blockading Joel Barlow’s destination of Cherbourg, and when Hull had to shuttle some American diplomats to Portsmouth, England, the situation deteriorated further.
Thomas Holland, a sailor on Constitution, snuck off the ship in Portsmouth harbor on November 13. He turned up on the HMS Havannah, but the Royal Navy refused to release him. Less than a week later, a sailor from HMS Havannahshowed up aboard Constitution. Hull refused to return him. With the ship ready for battle, Hull slipped out of Portsmouth at 3:30 AM on November 21, 1811.
On June 18th, 1812, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wrote to Captain Hull with the news that the United States was at war with England. The crew requested permission to give three cheers when they heard the country was at war. Hamilton ordered Hull to proceed to New York as soon as the ship was ready. Hull left Annapolis on July 5, and Constitution proceeded down the Chesapeake Bay. Over the next week, Hull drilled the crew constantly.
After leaving the Chesapeake Bay, light winds prevented Constitution from making much progress towards New York. On July 16, Constitution spotted four ships to the north and closer to shore than Constitution. Hull moved towards the ships, thinking they might be the American squadron he was supposed to meet in New York.
As night fell, Hull got close enough to one of the ships to use the night signal. When the ship didn’t answer, Hull realized he was looking at an enemy squadron. Outnumbered, he turned Constitution south. The British ships followed, and HMS Guerriere fired a signal rocket to tell the rest of the British squadron Constitution was an American warship.
The Constitution was outnumbered. The wind was extremely light, so neither the Constitution nor the British squadron could move. Constitution’s crew lowered one of their boats into the water and began towing the ship. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew brought a 24 pounder gun up to the top deck and aimed it back at the British ships. They aimed two more guns out of the cabin windows, so the Constitution could fire at the British ships approaching from behind.
By this time one of the British ships had started firing at Constitution. The crew used the anchor to drag the ship forward. With boats and the anchor, Constitution made slow progress through the calm sea. The British ships also struggled without wind, but the British squadron sent all their boats to one ship to tow her towards Constitution.
Finally, on July 19, the wind picked up. The Constitution set all her sails and escaped. After this encounter, Hull decided not to sail for New York. Constitution arrived in Boston on July 26, and set sail on August 2 to search for British ships.
On August 19, the Constitution found a familiar frigate, the British HMS Guerriere. Guerriere was part of the squadron that chased Constitution in July, but was now sailing alone for Nova Scotia. Constitution changed course to pursue the enemy, and shortly after 5 PM Guerriere opened fire. The first broadside fell short, but Guerriere turned around and fired the rest of her guns at Constitution. Constitution returned fire with some of her guns, but wasn’t yet in a position to fire a broadside. By 6:05, Constitution was ready to strike. Hull wrote later that they “opened…a heavy fire from all our Guns, at 15 minutes after 6 PM the Enemies Mizin Mast fell over the Starboard side, on which our crew gave three cheers.” Constitution tried to follow up by raking the Guerriere’s bow with cannon fire, but couldn’t because of damage to Constitution’s rigging. Meanwhile the Guerriere tried to fire on Constitution but could only bring one gun to bear.
Guerriere’s Fore and Main masts both fell over at 6:30, and the British ship surrendered. 79 sailors were killed aboard Guerriere, and 296 prisoners came aboard the Constitution. The American ship lost 14 sailors and Marines in the battle. During the battle, Constitution’s legend was born. Someone yelled “Her sides are made of iron” as cannonballs seemed to bounce off of Constitution, and the nickname “Old Ironsides” stuck.
Constitution had suffered damage to her rigging during the battle, and the crew worked on repairing it on the way back to Boston. Finally, on August 31st Constitution was at anchor outside Boston harbor. She sighted 4 warships and a brig heading for Boston Light. Worried it was a British squadron, the crew cut their anchor cables and quickly set sail, ready for action. Fortunately the ships turned out to be the American squadron Constitution was supposed to join in New York.
Hull came ashore to a 17 gun salute and a hero’s welcome. Constitution showed Bostonians that their relatively new nation was a force to be reckoned with at sea. The American Navy was much smaller than the British Navy, but could protect American shipping and pose a real threat to Royal Navy warships.
Constitution completed two more cruises during the War of 1812. William Bainbridge, widely considered an unlucky captain, defeated the HMS Java off of Brazil. Bainbridge, like Constitution, redeemed himself after an unlucky start. It took three tries to launch Constitution in 1797. Bainbridge was the first officer to surrender his ship to an enemy in 1798. In 1804, he ran the USS Philadelphia aground in Tripoli Harbor, becoming the second American officer to surrender his ship. Off Brazil, facing the HMS Java, he kept fighting even after the Constitution’s helm was destroyed. After the crew defeated the Java, the crew took the wheel from the British ship. Java’s wheel is still aboard USS Constitution.
In 1813, Captain Charles Stewart took command of Constitution. On February 20, 1815, he encountered and defeated two British warships, HMS Cyane and Levant off of Madeira. The brave sailors and Marines aboard USS Constitution proved that the United States Navy was not only capable of defending American shipping close to home, but was prepared to bring the fight to the enemy far from home.
“A Most Fortunate Ship” by Tyrone Martin: Martin, T. (1980). “A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of ‘Old Ironsides’.” The Globe Pequot Press, Chester, Connecticut.
USS CONSTITUTION Museum. (2018). “Transcription of the Logbook of The United States Frigate Constitution. Isaac Hull, Commander. June 12, 1812-September 16,1812.” Retrieved from: https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Isaac-Hull-Logbook-Transcription.pdf